Summary: The key to relating in God’s church is mutual submission. This aaplies to everyone in the church, young and old, male and female.
We come today to one of those difficult passages, that most preachers would prefer to avoid if at all possible. What we find here isn’t particularly popular in today’s world. Ours is an age of liberation. The idea of submission to authority is at variance with modern ideas of permissiveness and freedom. People have fought long and hard over the past 30 years to liberate, in particular, women, children and workers, from oppression and subordination. So anything that even hints of oppression is deeply resented and strongly resisted. So how do we respond to this modern mood?
Well, the first thing to say is that we should welcome those movements of liberation. We should be working against any institution which exploits or oppresses some group of people, whether they’re women, or children, the poor, racial or religious minorities, or anyone else who’s powerless to help themselves. I guess one of the shames of the Christian church over the centuries is the way we’ve acquiesced in the status quo, even at times unwittingly paving the way for imperialistic exploitation of conquered peoples. But in fact, we should be in the vanguard of those seeking social change. You could argue that the sort of liberation that we’ve seen over the past decades, even the past couple of centuries first occurred with the coming of the gospel. Wasn’t it Jesus Christ who took the first steps to liberating women, children and workers? Didn’t Jesus treat women with dignity and honour in an age when women were despised. Wasn’t it he who said let the children come to me, for of these is the Kingdom of heaven? Wasn’t it Jesus who worked as a carpenter, and who washed his disciples feet because he’d come to be a servant of all? So let’s be careful as we read a passage like this that we don’t read into it a reactionary patriarchal world view. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact before we look at this passage we need to do a bit more background thinking. We need to have a solid foundation on which to stand before we look at something as difficult as this or else it’ll trip us up.
Before we look at this passage we need to understand the Christian worldview that Paul himself teaches. Already in this book he’s argued for the oneness in Christ of all races: that is, of Jew and Gentile. We’re all part of God’s family, brought to unity in the body of Christ. But back in Galatians he went further. There he points out that in Christ, not only is there neither Jew nor Gentile, but neither is there slave or free, male or female. So the oneness we enjoy in Christ breaks down all the social barriers that have been built up since the fall. (But more of that in a moment.)
So the Christian worldview that we should be working from allows us confidently to affirm 3 truths:
the dignity of womanhood, childhood and servanthood as shown by the ministry of Christ himself
the equality before God of all human beings, irrespective of race, rank, class, culture, sex or age.
and the even deeper unity of all Christian believers as fellow members of God’s family and of Christ’s body.